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9 of the best online tools for writers

Though creative writing may have been your favourite course in college, chances are you decided to get a degree in something more practical, like electrical engineering or computer science. You still have that urge to express your more creative side, but by the time you get home from work, the last thing you want to do is anchor yourself to the computer and type up a couple of thousand words of that novel you've been writing in your head.

Aside from lack of motivation, you may not even know where to start. The blank, bright white page can be intimidating, no matter how many ideas you have to fill it, and your first few chapters may require a little hand-holding. Not to mention, once you manage to pen a few pages, you'd like to be proofread and get some constructive feedback. While writing workshops abound, your schedule doesn't really allow for them.

Now, there are plenty of online and mobile resources that all aspiring writers can take advantage of, including apps and websites to help you get started, as well as one to help you hurdle that inevitable writer's block. As for those writing workshops, with the integration of social networks and writing sites, you can get encouragement and reactions from a much larger community of fellow writers. We've rounded up nine helpful tools that will help coax out your inner writer. And when you finish that novel by the end of the year, you might even feel the need to give us a shout out on your acknowledgements page.


Although the number of participants has grown wildly, from 21 in 1999 to hundreds of thousands, the goal of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, is unchanged: Write a 50,000-word (about 175-page) novel between the first and last days of November.

It took F. Scott Fitzgerald eight years to write Tender is the Night, and James Joyce spent 17 years writing Finnegan's Wake, so writing a novel in just 30 days is quite a feat. However, the point of setting aside a month to write is not to dwell over each word, says NaNoWriMo, but it's to "give yourself permission to write without obsessing over quality." The organisation values "enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft," so people are encouraged to simply write and worry about what to keep and what to delete later. It doesn't matter what you write about, as long as it's fiction and not something you've already started working on (though an existing outline, character sketches, and prior research are all acceptable).

The NaNoWriMo site lets you track your progress, get pep talks and support, and meet other people brave enough to write a novel in a month. NaNoWriMo is completely free but is funded by donations from participants.

750 Words

Like NaNoWriMo, 750 Words was created with one goal in mind: To get people to write, write, write. Its creator, Buster Benson, was inspired by an idea called "morning pages" from The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path To Higher Creativity. With morning pages, you write three pages a day, usually in the morning and in longhand. Taking that idea, 750 Words encourages writing about "everything and anything that comes to your head," according to the website.

Users can look back at their writing from days, months, and years past, and they are encouraged to write without being edited or censored, which is supposed to help clear the mind and get ideas flowing for the rest of the day.

So why not write your daily "brain dump" on LiveJournal, WordPress, or Tumblr? Benson said he's tried these but was always afraid that he might accidentally forget to mark each item as private. The writing done on 750 Words is "between you and you," and is totally private. The site tracks your word count so you know how many words you have left to go while you're writing. It also automatically scrolls and saves as you write.

If competition motivates you to type, you can compare your score with friends and other users. Users get a score card each month and receive one point for writing anything at all, and two points for writing 750 words or more. Writing two, three, or more days in a row scores you even more points.

For the first few years it existed, 750 Words was free, but as it has grown, the cost of maintaining the servers and user support has also increased – so now there’s a $5 (£3) per month subscription. You can, however, have a 30-day trial to find out whether this is a service you’d be happy paying for.


Penzu is a private online diary where users are welcome to write whatever they want, including private thoughts, daily diary entries, or just notes. Penzu's goal is to create an online journal experience that's as similar to writing in a paper journal as possible. Users can feel at ease to spill their deepest, darkest secrets, knowing they're safe from prying eyes because entries are only accessible through the user's password protected Penzu account. Chroniclers can even lock specific entries so that if someone does guess their login, they still won't be able to read specific entries without a second password.

Penzu features auto-saving, filtered document searching, and a super-customizable appearance. It's free, but there's also a Pro account ($19 or £11 per year) that offers 256-bit AES algorithm encryption – the same one used by the US government. Penzu is so vigilant about its users' privacy that if a user loses his or her password, he or she is out of luck; those entries are no longer available to the user or to anyone else – not even Penzu. Accessible from any computer in the world, as well as from mobile devices, Pro users can download the free iPhone or Android app and continue their journal writing on the go.


Scrivener was created to help writers compose and structure the often hard-to-write first draft of long documents. Available for both Mac and PC, priced at £30 and £26 respectively, only those who are a bit more serious about writing will likely download it, but that may make them less likely to procrastinate. Scrivener lets users write text in any order and in chunks both small and large. Users can view the pieces of drafts individually or as a whole, and import research files and images that will sit next to the text, acting as reference material while typing – a big time-saver, eliminating the need to switch back and forth between windows.

Scrivener features project templates for novels, scripts, essays, and customised works. Users can make notes in the sidebar, which become footnotes or endnotes when the document is either printed or exported. Want to revert back to yesterday's version? "Snapshots" lets users store earlier versions of text and go back to them at any time.

As with any good word processing app, Scrivener auto-saves and users can tell Scrivener to back up a project as a ZIP file whenever it's opened or closed. The file can be saved to a Dropbox account so that it's accessible from any computer. In terms of structure, users can track ideas using labels and keywords, and also search within the entire project.

Scrivener offers a free 30-day trial, so you can try before you commit.


Perfect for challenges at work, a relationship issue, or a goal that may seem out of reach, Unstuck is not just for writers. That being said, the free iPad-only app is a great resource for budding authors who get held up during part of the writing process. With 11 tools and more than 50 targeted tips, Unstuck helps users get to the root of the problem. The app maps out the elements of the situation, prioritises by turning ideas into a plan, creates a path to overcome obstacles that arise, suggests ways to pull together any needed help, and encourages users to use their gut instincts to make a decision. Users can have up to five stuck moments at a time. According to Unstuck, "for each stuck moment, you get tried-and-true tips and the perfect tool to pry yourself loose and get unstuck." Say goodbye to writer's block!


Looking to make some money from your writing? Starting off as an open marketplace for writers and publishers, Contently has turned into a platform where writers can manage their freelance careers and create free portfolios. Contently is geared towards both journalists and publishers and is intended to empower writers by connecting them to others in the freelance network. If a writer is available to freelance, he or she can apply to write for one of the publishers on Contently. Featured publishers include CBS, Mint, Elle, Business Week, and Comcast. Writers from The New York Times, Boston Globe, Better Homes, The Wall Street Journal, and Reuters have used Contently to manage their freelance careers and build up their personal brand. Portfolios are copyright-protected and include typical CV information, including educational background, location, recognition, as well as a biography. Writers can pull published work from websites within seconds.


Sitting down to write on the computer is a very different experience to grabbing a paper-bound journal and holing up in your room for an hour. There are tons of distractions that interrupt us while writing on the computer: An instant message, an email notification, the need to check Facebook every five minutes.

OmmWriter for Mac, PC, and iPad is a text editor that focuses on writing in a peaceful environment, allowing users to increase their capacity to concentrate while creating. OmmWriter opens in full-screen mode and has a handful of Zen-like backgrounds and audio tracks to help you concentrate. Don't forget your headphones when taking your laptop to the coffee shop or you'll miss out on the peaceful sounds that will help you focus while writing. In addition to the free, basic version called Dana I, there's also a second version called Dana II that offers more backgrounds and audio tracks. Dana II comes at a suggested price of $4 (£2.50), but users are welcome to pay what they want.


If OmmWriter seems too New Agey for you, give FocusWriter a try. The free app (though you can “tip” when you download) for Windows, Mac, and Linux helps users compose without distractions (including the app's user interface, which is hidden at the edges of the screen). Hovering the mouse over the top of the screen will open the toolbar; users can also choose to enter full-screen mode and not use the toolbar at all. FocusWriter has four simple themes and allows users to create their own, as well. The app includes a daily goal tracker with a word and page count, a time-spent-writing count, spell checker, a timer, an alarm, a daily goal, and an auto-save function. There are also optional typewriter sound effects so users can pretend they're tapping away at an old-fashioned typewriter.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Want to brush up on your college-level writing and reading skills? You don't have to pay an exorbitant amount to enrol in classes; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers a slew of undergrad and graduate writing courses online for free through its OpenCourseWare program.

Class subjects range from writing fiction, poems, and essays, to analysing literature. Some courses include interactive web demonstrations, streaming video lectures, and complete textbooks written by MIT professors. MIT's OpenCourseWare program lets users learn at their own pace as they move through the lecture notes, suggested reading lists, and videos.